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What is Monotheism?

Belief in a Single, All-Powerful God

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The word monotheism comes from the Greek monos, which means one, and theos, which means god. Thus, monotheism is a belief in the existence of a single god. Monotheism is usually contrasted with polytheism, which is the belief in many gods, and atheism, which is the absence of any belief in gods.

Because monotheism is founded upon the idea that there is only one god, it is common for believers to also think that this god created all of reality and is totally self-sufficient, without any dependency upon any other being. This is what we find in the largest monotheistic religious systems: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism.

Most monotheistic systems tend to be exclusive in nature - what this means is that they don't simply believe in and worship a single god, but they also deny the existence of the gods of any other religious faiths. Occasionally we can find a monotheistic religion treating other alleged gods as merely being aspects or incarnations of their one, supreme god; this, however, is relatively infrequent and occurs more during a transition between polytheism and monotheism when the older gods need to be explained away.

As a consequence of this exclusivity, monotheistic religions have historically displayed less religious tolerance than polytheistic religions. The latter have been able to incorporate the gods and beliefs of other faiths with relative ease; the former can only do so without admitting it and while denying any reality or validity to others' beliefs.

The form of monotheism which is traditionally most common in the West (and which is too often confused with theism in general) is the belief in a personal god which emphasizes that this god is a conscious mind that is immanent in nature, humanity, and the values which it has created. This is unfortunate, because it fails to acknowledge the existence of great variety not only within monotheism generally, but also within monotheism in the West.

On the one extreme we have the uncompromising monotheism of Islam where God is depicted as undifferentiated, eternal, unequaled, unbegotten, and in no way anthropomorphic (indeed, anthropomorphism - attributing human qualities to Allah - is considered blasphemous in Islam). At the other end we have Christianity which posits a very anthropomorphic God which is three persons in one. As practiced, monotheistic religions worship very different types of gods: just about the only thing they have in common is the focus on a single god.

The origin of monotheism is unclear. The first recorded monotheistic system arose in Egypt during the rule of Akhenaten, but it did not long survive his death. Some suggest that Moses, if he existed, brought monotheism to the ancient Hebrews, but it is possible that he was still henotheistic or monolatrous. Some evangelical Christians regard Mormonism as a modern example of monolatry because Mormonism teaches the existence of many gods of many worlds, yet worships only the one of this planet.

Various theologians and philosophers through time have believed that monotheism "evolved" from polytheism, arguing that polytheistic faiths were more primitive and monotheistic faiths more advanced - culturally, ethically, and philosophically. Although it may be true that polytheistic beliefs are older than monotheistic beliefs, this view is heavily value-laden and cannot be readily disentangled from attitudes of cultural and religious bigotry.

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